How BDSM e-book "Fifty Shades of Grey" went viral

"Fifty Shades of Grey" The Writer's Coffee Shop

"Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James
The Writer's Coffee Shop

(CBS News) Women across the country are quietly turning the independently-published, novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" into the next publishing sensation - with a little help from social media.

The novel by E.L. James is the first installment of an erotic trilogy about a woman named Anastasia Steele and her exploration of bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM) with billionaire Christian Grey.

What's remarkable about the book's popularity is its absence of a major publisher and marketing machine, not to mention a shortage of physical copies. The novel is published by Australian publishing house, The Writers Coffee Shop, and has mainly been consumed in digital form on e-book readers like the Kindle or Nook. "Fifty Shades of Grey" is currently No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers list and No. 4 in the Kindle Store. According to the Toronto Star, the e-book sold 250,000 copies.

The Star also noted that Vintage Books, which is part of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and a subsidiary of Random House, won the publishing rights in a bidding war.

Vintage will run 750,000 paperback copies of the novel in coming weeks, according to the New York Times. If the buzz surrounding this book continues to swell, they may have to run additional copies.

So how did an obscure BDSM novel, which Publisher's Weekly confirmed began as "Twilight" fan fiction, become a phenomenon? At least part of the explanation can be found in the social network for book worms, Goodreads. The novel was published on May 26, 2011 and was first reviewed at the social network in June.

"Initial buzz about 'Fifty Shades of Grey' started building on Goodreads as early as last summer and its phenomenally high average rating earned it a nomination for the Best Romance award in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards," Jessica Donaghy, features editor at Goodreads told CBS News via email. "The nomination in early November caused a spike in interest from members and the buzz kept growing as more people read the book and shared their reviews with their friends on Goodreads."

The author also helped kindle interest in the relatively unknown novel.

"During November and early December, E.L. James visited the site to answer fan questions which also helped maintain the momentum. The more people who read it, the more people heard about it and it kept growing from there," said Donaghy.

According to Goodreads, there are 15,285 ratings across all three of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" books. The first novel has 7,272 ratings and 1,451 reviews. Currently, New York is the No. 1 market for the novel, but Goodreads members in London, Los Angeles and Sydney are catching on.

The novel is also being discussed on Twitter. According to the real-time search tracking site Topsy, "Fifty Shades of Grey" has been mentioned 4,082 times in the last seven days ("50 Shades of Gray" was mentioned 1,426 times). 

The appeal of the novel's content is another story. The Huffington Post called it "pornography for mommies" and MSNBC compared it to the 1954 novel "The Story of O," which sparked a scandal for its boundary-pushing erotic content. These types of novels aren't new.

"There is in fact a multi-billion dollar industry of romance novels that are filled with bad boy heroes and desired heroines that succumb to the alpha-type hero," said couple and sex therapist Sari Cooper in Psychology Today. "Just as men watch their porn online, there are many women who go to websites in which laypeople share their erotic stories for others to read."

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